Lord Matthew Taylor discusses the context and political drivers of the forthcoming Local Elections
It’s that time of year again. Across the country, council candidates are out delivering leaflets, political leaders are out on tour, and planning finds itself in the firing line even more than it is the rest of the year. With a general election inching closer and a beleaguered Government, the politics of planning are, well, no better than they ever seem to be. Could they be worse?
These elections are being fought against the background of the National Planning Policy Framework proposed changes, the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Billl, and deep uncertainty in the housing market. Ever since the Liberal Democrats won the Amersham & Chesham byelection – with more than a nod to threats from HS2 and house building – housing delivery has appeared to take second place to political self-preservation. This appears to be of the ‘don’t-build-in-my-back-yard’ variety, backed by national politicians adding something that looks very much like …’or anybody else’s’ to the end of that. At least, not anybody else’s where there is significant unmet demand and homes could actually be delivered – that is to say, many of the places the political party in question feels most threatened.
The trouble with politicians reassuring the housing-haves (and more specifically their own back-benchers) is that the housing-have-nots get forgotten. Or at best postponed, which pretty much amounts to the same thing as we are a long, long way from catching up the backlog of homes not delivered in recent decades.
Political knee-jerk reactions carry consequences. According to The Times (7 April) 55 local authorities have suspended work on Local Plans. To pick an example not quite at random, Michael Gove’s own local authority Surrey Heath was aiming to publish its draft local plan in February – but pulled that commitment in light of the proposed changes to the NPPF. Meanwhile, last year the number of planning permissions dropped to their lowest since 2006. The outcome of Government pronouncements removing housing targets and pressure on local authorities to meet identified needs are clear.
Signs of change?
All pretty depressing. But there are glimmers of light. The most recent pronouncements from Government have started to show at least a touch of worry that their abreaction went too far. Rumours abound that Numbers 10 and 11 are starting to worry that housebuilders and councils scaling back delivery will worsen economic growth as well as homelessness. At the beginning of April Michael Gove made a speech rather different in tone from what came out after the byelection and meetings with backbenchers: More homes are ‘desperately needed’, and that the government is ‘determined to build the new homes our country so urgently needs’.
When will we know which is the real Michael Gove? Not till after the elections, of course.
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